Feel­ing Jew­ish (A Book for Just About Anyone)

  • Review
By – August 21, 2017

Feel­ing Jew­ish: (A Book for Just About Any­one) by Devo­rah Baum is an intrigu­ing study of what con­sti­tutes feel­ing Jew­ish” through an analy­sis of the treat­ment of Jews in lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. Baum draws upon crit­i­cal the­o­ry, phi­los­o­phy, psy­cho­analy­sis, and social sci­ence to sup­port her con­clu­sions. Each of her chap­ters focus on those feel­ings” that she writes are famous­ly asso­ci­at­ed with Jews.” The chap­ter titles are Self-hatred,” Envy,” Guilt,” Over the Top,” Para­noia,” Moth­er Love,” and Affect­ed.” The somber­ness of these top­ics is mis­lead­ing; Baum’s work is inter­spersed with Jew­ish jokes, which are used as poignant yet delight­ful illus­tra­tions of her deductions.

In her intro­duc­tion, Baum clar­i­fies her goals for the book: It’s not my project here to advance a par­tic­u­lar polit­i­cal agen­da. I want to talk instead about how the feel­ings that seem so often to divide us may also be a means of unit­ing us.” In today’s rapid­ly chang­ing glob­al soci­ety, large seg­ments of soci­ety feel exis­ten­tial­ly threat­ened and mar­gin­al­ized. These are the hall­mark feel­ings often asso­ci­at­ed with being Jew­ish. In actu­al­i­ty, Baum sug­gests, these emo­tions are often shared with oth­er groups, espe­cial­ly those stig­ma­tized based on their race, migra­tion, class, or sex­u­al­i­ty.” The com­mon­al­i­ty of these feel­ings may serve to bring dif­fer­ent groups in soci­ety clos­er together.

The chap­ter enti­tled Self-Hate” is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing. Char­ac­ter­iz­ing a writer or per­son as a self-hat­ing Jew” is an espe­cial­ly odi­ous des­ig­na­tion. These days, Baum sug­gests, the term is more often used by Jews against Jews who are seen as pub­licly crit­i­cal of Israel or Zion­ism.” In oth­er con­texts, it was a term applied to pop­u­lar Jew­ish writ­ers such as Philip Roth, Bernard Mala­mud, and Woody Allen. Baum writes, dogged by the accu­sa­tion of Jew­ish self-hatred from the begin­ning of his career, Roth made this charge a recur­rent theme in his work.” This can be seen in Portnoy’s Com­plaint, in which Roth’s Jew­ish char­ac­ters have over­bear­ing moth­ers and expe­ri­ence ever-present anx­i­ety, guilt, and a sense of mar­gin­al­iza­tion. But, argues Baum, these seem­ing­ly neg­a­tive Jew­ish feel­ings can actu­al­ly be seen as bless­ings” because it is these emo­tions that have con­tributed to the won­der­ful Jew­ish sense of humor, per­cep­tive­ness, and pas­sion for oth­ers and ideas.

Feel­ing Jew­ish: (A Book for Just About Any­one) is rec­om­mend­ed for all read­ers who would like to exam­ine feel­ing Jew­ish” from a vari­ety of new perspectives.

Read Devo­rah Baum’s Vis­it­ing Scribe Posts

The 12 Most Stereo­typ­i­cal Jews in Literature

Five Books That Counter the Neg­a­tive” Nar­ra­tive of Jew­ish Literature

Sev­en Books That Cap­ture the Breadth of Jew­ish Experience

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions